It used to be a hardware store! The exterior is very utilitarian in appearance. The interior was gutted, leaving a large sanctuary that seems open, fresh and new. At the back and side there are offices and classrooms fashioned out of model structures that the hardware store left behind. Where one used to buy things to repair one's home, now one can go to have one's soul and heart repaired!
The community we saw today had one very special bond: they all love Erin and her family.
Jacksonville, in northern Florida near the border with Georgia, is Florida's largest city. It is home to a major military facility and deep water port. All Souls Church is located in the Orange Park section of the city, to the southwest, a typical suburban community with strip malls and housing of all types. There are several other more traditional looking churches of varying denominations in the area.
The Revd Harold Haugan, pastor (better known as Father Whitey because of the color of his hair, which he told us was white even when he was a boy), was the celebrant. The Revd Jeff Gatlin, pastor of Freedom Baptist Church, St Augustine, Florida, preached. The Revd George Hall, Mr Terry Vliek and Mr Bill Bunch served as lectors. A lady in clerical collar whose name was not given was in charge of the music. In attendance from Ship of Fools were Jedijudy accompanied by Daughter Unit; Amanda B. Reckondwythe, Janine accompanied by Mr Janine; Ye Olde Motherboarde accompanied by JB; and Presleyterian.
What was the name of the service?Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving for the Life of Erin Melissa Etheredge.
How full was the building?
We counted about 300 seats and would say that about seven-eighths of them were occupied.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We got several smiles and nods, but most folks were either preparing for the reception to follow or quietly talking to each other. We were among the first to arrive, so there were not many people in a position to greet.
Was your pew comfortable?
We sat on padded chairs. They were fairly comfortable, but perhaps the backs were a bit too upright.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very subdued. People were quietly talking and giving friends and family hugs. Music was playing softly over the PA system.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A specially prepared leaflet. The Holy Bible, New International Version, was available in the rack under the seats.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Several members of the St Augustine Police Department were present in dress uniform out of respect for Jason, Erin's brother; they provided a handsome distraction. Miss Amanda spotted a woman who looked like Governor Janice Brewer of Arizona, although she doubted that Her Honor was actually present. But the most annoying distraction was that the microphone wasn't always on when the priest was speaking.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was very relaxed. There were a few people who seemed to feel comfortable raising their hands during the service, but most did not. It certainly wasn't stiffly formal at all; it felt very intimate. It was basically a low Rite II eucharist from the Book of Common Prayer. The altar was dressed in a white frontal and the chalice veil was white; likewise, the priest wore an alb and white stole. Pastor Gatlin, the preacher, wore a dark blue shirt and black slacks. There were candles on the altar but no bells or incense. The host and chalice were not raised at the consecration, nor was there a "little elevation" at the end of the eucharistic prayer. There was no exchange of peace. Father Whitey made it a point to say that all were welcome at communion, and took a few minutes to explain how communion was ministered. Even so, several people did not go forward to receive.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Pastor Gatlin said that he was used to taking the stage as he preached rather than being confined to a pulpit ("box", he called it). Even so, he spent a lot of time looking down at his notes, although every now and then he seemed to depart from his prepared remarks. Those moments were the most inspiring, we all thought. The overall effect was not that he was preaching to us, but rather was sharing a lesson.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Pastor Gatlin asked us to "remember, review and refocus", not only as regards Erin, but in other aspects of our lives. God knows our response to the death of a loved one. Jesus wept when Lazarus died. The passing of a loved one gives us pause to think about our own lives. Erin taught people about life, and that bills and gadgets aren't the important things in life. Death also reminds us that we will all be called one day to answer to God for our lives. We need to refocus on Jesus as our personal savior. We need hope for our souls, people we love and who love us.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
After communion, several people shared anecdotes from Erin's life. For instance, it seems that Erin's little sister once wandered into Erin's bedroom and found what she thought was a headband. She put it on and proudly showed herself off to her older sister. Only it wasn't a headband; it was a wire from Erin's bra! We all agreed that every word that was said revealed a personality that was exactly the Erin we Shipmates knew and loved, even though most of us had never met her. Ye Olde Motherboarde spoke about how blessed we are to be able to love people without ever having met them. Miss Amanda said a few words about Erin's contribution to the Ship.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The times we couldn't hear the priest because of the microphone situation dragged my attention away from the purpose of the service. Also, the songs were mostly "light contemporary Christian" and seemed unfamiliar to most of the congregation (no notes were given). Also, they were pitched too high for comfortable singing. The Ship of Fools contingency tried bravely to sing out, but our tears often got the best of us. The one exception was the closing hymn, "How Great Thou Art", which we managed in lusty multi-part harmony.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We all tried to work the room, meeting family members and expressing our condolences. We met Erin's parents and, of course, her brother Jason. Everyone was surprised to know of Erin's involvement with the Ship: "We had no idea!" was something we heard over and over again. Many people questioned us about the Ship; we'll bet that some of them went home and fired up their browsers. And what a wonderful surprise: we spotted another Shipmate, Presleyterian, among the congregation. She came right up to us and hugged us!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
People had brought assorted platters of sandwiches, cheeses, fruit salad, and pastries. Miss Amanda pronounced the coffee eminently drinkable. Jedijudy thought the sweet iced tea could have stood a tad more sugar. But to be honest, all the emotions of the occasion dampened our appetites.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – The people were so very nice, and we liked the feel of the service. But most of us are traditionalists at heart and prefer a traditional church building with organ and acoustic piano, even though we know that the building is not the church, as they say.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely! What an affirmation not only of Erin's life and her contributions to our lives, but of our love and service for each other. What do non-believers and their families do when loved ones pass on? How do they have hope? We have hope and a future!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
It was an honor and a privilege for us to have attended Erin's memorial. It will stay with us for the rest of our lives.